When Whispers Beckon: Someone Getting Fired?

Hungarian Telephone Factory - 1937. Budapest

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There are execs who can’t seem to say goodbye – Howard Schultz and Michael Dell come to mind – while there are those who perform well such as Proctor & Gamble’s Art Lafley, who move on when their time as a CEO is up.

The latter types of leaders make the transition to “civilian” status from the CEO role with grace and timeliness. They’ve served, they’ve contributed, and they’re moving on, not still hovering to see how their successor is doing with what used to be “their job.”

Unlike people like Schultz and Dell – founder execs who hired their replacement and decided that they (Dell and Schultz) were the right person to be put (back) in charge when the business stumbled, the folks who move on know that it’s not helpful to continue to stay actively involved with the firm they ran.

The phone call I yesterday was common; a former CEO calling me to find out how to handle “all the calls and complaints” they’d been getting about the person who succeeded them in the job.

What happens when people think the gal or guy who replaced them is screwing up – and are asking you to be the one to let the new exec know?

It’s a tough spot – one in which many execs find themselves. The same people who might of been critical of your work when you held the job are now nostalgic for your way of managing as “the new guy” makes their own mark on the role that had been yours.

Worst yet is when you know the new person well – the result of a small town, social and work circles that overlap, and – as my friend Wendy Yanowitch suggests – “the world is really six people with lots of mirrors.”

So what do you do?

The first thing to think about is what’s your goal? If the goal is to collect grapevine feedback, then encouraging the call and the conversation is the way to do it. It will let people know you have a “friendly” ear. What may be a serious need to make a change at the top gets surfaced and discovered; the early stages of a palace coup, successful or not, look very similar.

Downside of that friendly approach? It compromises bonds built on mutual trust, and encourages minor issues ballooning out of all proportion and accuracy. It is the “I have a friend” line that ramps up as if on steroids.

Encouraging that call and conversation is also disabling the “new guy” if your goal is empower and enable the person to succeed. Unless the concern is significant and valid, you taking the call and grapevine hubbub that will ramp up will hamstring the person’s effectiveness. Will the incumbent last in the job? Should you invest much time in the relationship? Should you follow their direction and leadership knowing that they’re a hair width away from being sacked?

A better tact IMHO is to direct the calls the people who can make a change; board members in this case. Take the caller by the proverbial hand (the conference button on a phone works wonders – just make sure you drop off the call once you’ve made the connection) and have them speak to somebody who is paid handle governance.

While you may care, you’re not paid to handle governance. Move on; there are bigger fish to fry in the game called life.

And handling calls and rumors about your successor’s performance is not one of them.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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